When I set my foot on Japan in September 2012, a year and a half after the Great East Japan Earthquake, I found a vibrant civil society scene with a wide range of civilian efforts. There were many volunteer opportunities, and based on a reference, I signed on as a volunteer at Tono Magokoro Net (TMN), an organization founded roughly four months after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami.

I was part of a team that tended a large community garden—a common way to reconstruct an area and help locals develop a sense of solidarity. Early on, I talked to Makoto Yanagisawa, the manager of the TMN office at that time, who left his job as an assistant professor at the Medical College of Georgia to devote himself to post-earthquake relief work. He pulled out some brochures and three encyclopedic binders full of newspaper clippings, magazine pages, and websites about TMN. As I flipped through the pages, it became apparent that TMN has done and is doing everything to help disaster-hit communities; among other services, it provides social and psychological support for every age group, organizes reconstruction projects, aids small business set up, and offers scholarships to students to continue their education.

I reconnected with Makoto again in late 2013 to see how things changed. There is now a lot less international media attention, and I wondered about the volunteer organizations. Some scholars suggest that the earthquake provided a catalyst for building civil society’s capacity and influence in Japan (which was relatively small compared to other developed democracies). Nonprofit organizations took on a significant role in post-disaster work, filling the void in services that government was unable or too slow to provide. The number of officially certified nonprofits increased 6 percent after the earthquake (reaching 47,974 in 2013).

Now that the relief phase over, communities have entered a reconstruction phase, and it presents a different set of challenges. “The number of tsunami victim-relief organizations has decreased, many national organizations have withdrawn from the Iwate Prefecture, and local organizations formed in response to the earthquake have turned inactive,” Makoto lamented.

Why is TMN still active and other volunteer organizations aren’t? It is doing two things right:

1. A needs-based approach to programming

The trajectory of TMN has reflected the need of the communities it serves. Originally, its priorities were providing food, water, transport, and equipment to victims. In 2012, it developed longer-term recovery programs, such as the reconstruction community centers, gardens, and nursery schools. Last year, it began supporting entrepreneurs and developing programs that create jobs.

Before starting any activity, TMN’s team talks to community members directly to identify their priorities. From there, they maintain daily communication with and work side-by-side the community members. “We do anything that tsunami victims need, not what we want to do,” Makoto emphasized. He recounted many “firsts”: “No one in our organization had a bento (lunch box) shop before [the tsumami]. No one had a food-processing factory. No one took care of the mentally and physically challenged. Even debris removal—we did not know how to do it the first time. In other words, we are not specialists of disaster relief activity.” They learned as they went, and there were advantages: Volunteers had no pre-conceived notions about how to do relief work and no prejudice against newcomers. The emphasis on partnership with the victims continues to contribute to the sustainability of TMN’s activities; it allows the organization to grow roots in disaster-hit areas and take on a wide range of issues.

2. Inclusive recruitment policies

TMN recruits an impressive number and range of volunteers. Its recruiting method is surprisingly simple—most people register on its website. Makoto explained that TMN is able to reach a large network of volunteers because it refuses no one. Many volunteer centers accept only groups (companies or schools), because managing individual volunteers is time-consuming; many refuse foreigners for the same reason. TMN also has a small but well-functioning facility that can house 110 people at a time; this allows volunteers who travel long distances or who participate in multi-day activities a place to stay overnight. It also partners with more than 60 organizations and companies. Over the last three years, TMN has accommodated more than 90,000 volunteers (impressive considering that there are only 30,000 residents in Tono)—far more than other organizations.

But there was something more: It turns out that almost 80 percent of volunteers keep coming back. Transient but tangible communities have formed. Some volunteers keep in touch and make arrangements to return at a set time, some stay weeks or even months at a time. Feeding this loyalty is TMN’s treatment of every volunteer as a stakeholder, making sure to update volunteers on progress at the beginning and end of a workday, and the horizontal structure—the staff organizes and facilitates rather than giving orders.

TMN has managed to compensate for any lack of expertise by embracing diversity and solidarity among its volunteers and partners. It strikes a balance between acknowledging new demands and providing sufficient supplies of programs and volunteers. Makoto concludes: “Because our organization is inclusive, we are able to adjust readily to new conditions—and that is why we are still here.”